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Taking the knee is more than just ‘gesture politics’

The act has propelled football into a new era of confronting racism, writes Seth McKeown

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11 JULY WAS SUPPOSED to be a special day in English sporting history. The national men's team reached their first major final since 1966 and silverware was within arm’s length for Gareth Southgate’s men.

The Three Lions were leading Italy with Luke Shaw’s finish in the second minute, and the country was united in supporting their countrymen. But then Italy equalised, the game went to penalties, and three young footballers – Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka – stepped up to the penalty spot with the weight of the world on their shoulders. They missed. And we were once again reminded that the beautiful game has an ugly side to it.

It has been 18 months since footballers first took the knee to condemn racism. It was a show of unity to condemn the lack of action in challenging racism in football and wider society. But since footballers first took the knee, an act borrowed from American Football player Colin Kaepernick from 2016, the gesture has been marred with controversy; Priti Patel called the act “gesture politics,” whilst Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha described it as “degrading” to Black footballers and called for footballers to “stand tall” in the face of racism.

So it begs the question – how did the murder of George Floyd 4,000 miles away initiate a national football campaign against racism in Britain? The simple answer is that George Floyd’s murder triggered an epiphany that linked the struggles of Black footballers to racism in wider society. Football had been riddled with racism throughout its entire existence and it was the impact of activists who launched football in this direction. Wes Morgan, former Leicester City Captain, was the one who suggested that footballers take the knee before the re-start in June 2020.

Football has a long history of racism dating back to the first Black man to ever receive an England call up at senior level – Jack Leslie – in 1925. But whilst Leslie was called up, he never played – because his ethnicity was discovered by the coaching staff only after his call-up. It was not until 1978 that a Black footballer first took the field to represent England in Viv Anderson, who was part of Brian Clough’s era-defining Nottingham Forrest side, 53 years later.

A decade on, one of the most notorious photographs in English football history was taken when Liverpool's John Barnes kicked a banana, that was thrown at him, off the pitch during a Merseyside derby in 1988. It showed that Black footballers were alone in challenging racism. Nine years later, the first British anti-racism football organisation was established: ‘Kick it Out.’

Most recently, Raheem Sterling, who is frequently the subject of racist abuse on social media, confronted the Daily Mail in the lead up to the 2018 World Cup after they deliberately altered his quotes. The Daily Mail’s misquotation of Sterling stated, “I made a promise to myself I would never touch a gun again in my lifetime.” He’d never said ‘again.’

What these renowned incidents have in common is that they show racism was coming from within football. From the FA, from the fans, from the players, and from the media.

And that is why football has become such an important battleground in challenging racism. The issue has often been depicted as an issue of us and them, that we know it happens, but we are not doing it, and therefore, we cannot do anything about it. That opinion has vastly changed since football started kneeling.

In March 2021, a Slavia Prague player – Ondrej Kudela – was accused of racially abusing Glen Kamara, a Black player for Scottish side Rangers, in the Europa League. The power of taking the knee was visually palpable when Slavia Prague
were drawn against Arsenal a few weeks later and Arsenal, alongside the referee, a symbol of authority, were united kneeling, whilst Slavia Prague’s players’ decision was to stand. Kudela was issued a ten-match ban for abusing Kamara.

Taking the knee has forced race discourse to develop. Fans are becoming educated on issues raised by Black footballers, such as the lack of Black managers in positions of authority in the game. A ‘Black Participant’s Working Group’ has been established to feed into the FA’s policy decisions.

Most importantly, the football community is challenging racists more than ever before.

Multiple convictions have been given to people found to have racially abused footballers. Simon Silwood on 30 September 2021 received an eight-week sentence for racially abusing West Bromwich Albion player Romaine Sawyers on social media after their 5-0 defeat to Manchester City in January 2021. More is being done to challenge racism, but the systemic prejudice and unconscious biases existent are as embedded in football as they are in wider society.

Taking the knee has not fortified change overnight, but it has begun to stimulate meaningful action. Football ignored racism for most of its existence, and the last 18 months has shown us that football has tremendous power in forcing change.

That power is now being used to confront racism in all corners of the game.

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